By Will Ashton
With The Fault in Our Stars, I get to be in an unusual position—well, at least in terms of its film adaptation. For, unlike numerous films based on books that I have not read, I get to actually experience this movie from the other side of the coin.
For not only have I read John Green’s novel, I was also one of the sucker’s that got swept into his little love story about teen cancer patients falling in love. Despite its cheesy moments, its likeable, sarcastic and wise-beyond-her-years protagonist and Green’s ability to hit all the typical dramatic beats in an usually grounded fashion elevate the novel into a heartfelt and unusual look at young love.
Which was a big reason why I was worrisome of its impending film recreation. While I have the utmost trust for screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who have penned not one, but two of my favorite screenplays of the past five years—(500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now—I had a hard time believing that book could truly make the transition from page to film.
Primarily, this is because what made the book tick—in my opinion—was Green’s writing, more than his story. The personality and heart he brought to the characters through his words are what made them come alive so well, and what lead them to break so many readers’ hearts. After all, if a weaker writer were given this exact story, I doubt it would have quite that same impact—to say the least.
Also not helping was the movie’s wish-washy trailer, which made it look more like the movie of the week on Lifetime than the respectful adaptation the book deserved.
These reservations probably had a great deal to do with my overall reaction to the eventual film. Because, while not perfect to say the least, Josh Boone’s film is a surprisingly passionate and sincerely heartfelt transition of Green’s words to the silver screen.
For those who are not familiar with the book, the movie follows Hazel (Shailene Woodley), a 16-year-old girl battling lung cancer, who is forced by her parents to join a local support group. While obviously reluctant to want to attend regularly, her tune begins to change when she meets and, subsequently, gets to know Augustus (Ansel Elgort), a fellow cancer-stricken teenager who makes a little more than an impact on Hazel’s life once they form an unusual relationship together.
First off, for those of you wondering how faithful this movie is to the book, I will rest your fears first. More so than perhaps any adaptation I have seen of late, this movie is about as close to the book as it probably could be. There are certainly stuff that is left out, and there are some details changed for dramatic license. There are also some plot elements that are likely out of their original placements in the story (of course, my memory may just be hazy there. It has been two years since I read the book). For the most part, though, this is extremely faithful to the book.
So, in that respect, this movie will be pleasing fans. But there are, of course, more to a successful adaptation than just following a book. The most crucial element in making a successful recreation of this book is the relationship between Hazel and Gus themselves. Without any spark between them, their adventures together would be meaningless. Well, maybe not meaningless, but you get my drift. But, truthfully, Woodley and Elgort are just stellar here, pulling in two powerhouse performances and capturing these characters to a T.
Their bond and their chemistry together are truthfully what makes this movie pop. More specifically, however, Elgort pretty much steals the show here. I am convinced there is a star to be made of this kid. Not only does he display a natural, loose charisma, but also he has the acting chops to match his moxie. He gives one of the most realistically grounded performances that I have seen from a younger actor in some time.
Not too ignore Woodley, of course, but she has already proven time and time again that she is a wonderful young talent. She’s great here too, but I have gone on praising her before. It’s Elgort’s time to shine, for as far as I’m concerned, it’s his movie here.
In fact, the acting all around is quite good. Laura Dern is good as always, and, even in a supporting role, Willem Dafoe makes quite the impression—as does Nat Wolff. But perhaps my favorite supporting performance of all was from Mike Birbiglia, who is woefully underused here as Patrick, the support group leader. He gives a subdued-ly hilarious performance here, and will probably be forgotten by most praising everyone else in the cast, but shouldn’t be.
But, enough kissing this movie’s ass—time to get to what doesn’t work. The Fault in Our Stars constantly walks a fine line between heartwarming and schmaltzy. Thanks to the cast, the movie keeps itself above its cheesy limitations for at least two thirds of the movie, thanks to their natural relationships together and their thankfully restrained direction during these moments. But things turn a bit sour as the movie gets into its third act.
After two solid, genuinely likable and winningly enduring acts, the movie begins to become what I would fear it would be. It doesn’t go completely off the deep end, mind you, but things definitely get overly emotional, the dialogue begins to become more repetitive when it should be reflective, and Boone begins to get a little too caught up making each moment have its full emotional capacity.
The first two acts aren’t perfect either; they are often a little too cutesy for their own good at times, and also, much like its characters, a little too confident when it should be more modest. But they are rewarding because, through its potential schmaltz, it keeps a genuine grace that keeps everything light and likably sweet. Much like some of the movies on James L. Brooks’ filmography, there is a compassion for these characters that wins you over almost as much as it won over the people behind the camera.
What was once fluid, then, starts to become a little rocky. From there, you would rather the movie wrap itself up, before it gets too far down the rabbit hole. Thankfully, it picks itself up a little in the end, and keeps things from getting too shaky. But there is no denying a TV-movie quality that possesses the final half hour of this film.
All in all, though, this adaptation succeeds more than its fails. The script, while not as good as their last two, is respectable, and Boone’s direction not only has an unexpected attention to detail, but knows how to keep things to what matters: Hazel and Gus’s relationship. When they are together, the movie can only do a little wrong, even if it seems like Boone may be trying otherwise as the movie progresses.
Quite frankly, I’m a little embarrassed but just how much The Fault in Our Stars took me in. I wasn’t as moved as some members of the audience, but I was certainly taken in by these character’s stories, as I was when I read the book. At the end of the day, that is all that matters. It’s not quite the home run the book was, but it a nice, crowd-pleasing film that is among the better surprises to come out this summer.